LORRY LOKEY, the founder of Business Wire, recently donated $33 million to build a stem cell research center at Stanford’s medical school.
“The important thing to me is that stem cells might not only extend life, but also improve the quality of life, as so many people suffer in their later years,” said Lokey, who is close to 80 years old.
The health and wellness goals of this initiative are solid, but most Americans are just recognizing the alarming social and political consequences of longer, healthier lives.
Lokey is generous, and he’s right. Stem cell research may add years and health to our lives. But all that extra time and well-being won’t be entirely cost-free. It’s time to start thinking about the changes biotechnology will bring to our lives and realizing that we haven’t planned for what science is about to provide.
Consider, for example, how poor financial decisions -- such as Americans’ abysmal savings rate -- will be amplified by longer lives. An insurance ad nicely sums up the growing strain on the Social Security trust fund: “The generation that ‘wouldn’t trust anyone over 30' never planned on a 30-year retirement.” The expectations of Americans will have to change, starting with the outdated idea that one can retire at 65.
And it’s not just an extension of working years that individuals will have to accept. We can also expect health problems to multiply, at least temporarily, as people live longer in bodies that didn’t have the benefit of the latest in nutritional knowledge, new treatments or better working conditions.
The good news is that science is going to be offering better cures faster than most expect. Cancer researchers already use nano-size particles to deliver targeted chemotherapy that acts like a “smart bomb,” killing off cancer cells and leaving the surrounding cells with low levels of toxicity. This makes the therapy more effective and less damaging to the body, ultimately saving more lives. Pharmaceutical companies are developing drugs to fight the crisis of obesity, which leads to diabetes, heart disease and premature death. British bio-gerontologist Aubrey de Grey and others are pursuing a goal of “engineered negligible senescence” -- which would in theory eliminate most of the physical damage of aging and lead to indefinite life spans.
Already, as life spans have increased and fertility science has advanced, women have started putting off childbearing until later in life. When it’s possible to live 120 years or more, women may put it off longer or not have children at all. This will exacerbate what society is already experiencing: more older people with political power. Clearly, one reason politicians are already loath to raise the retirement age is the voting clout of senior citizens, who raise a storm over any threat to full Social Security benefits starting at 65. It is also why society may start to become more risk-adverse. But taxing the young to pay for the old is not fair in a society where the “old” are not sick and frail.
We’re even starting to see intergenerational conflict in places where older populations expect to congregate, such as retirement homes. In California, a dispute erupted between 60-something baby boomers and 80-plus old-timers at the Rossmoor retirement home in Walnut Creek. Younger retirees want to upgrade facilities to include such things as exercise rooms, whereas the older types want to keep things as they are, with television and shuffleboard. “I think there is an attempt ... to get rid of the 80- and 90-year-olds,” a resident told the San Francisco Chronicle.
This points to a larger turf battle among generations that could get even nastier as class enters the equation. For instance, when new technologies and treatments radically alter some life spans but not others, there will be outrage over a “longevity divide” similar to the digital divide between “haves” and the “have nots” for Internet access.
We should start addressing these issues now. The logical place to start a national dialogue on life extension and its effects is with the question of whether it makes sense to retire at 65 if it is possible to be healthy well into one’s 80s and perhaps even until one reaches 100. The Senate Special Committee on Aging took some encouraging steps recently by considering methods to encourage retirement-age workers to stay on the job -- including flexible schedules, job training and benefits changes.
But it’s not just politicians who need to adjust. Culturally, everyone will have to become more flexible. That means reevaluating what it means to be “old” and anticipating the real shape of the next generation gap.